Editorials from around New York

Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New York's newspapers:

Newsday on robocalls

June 8

The calls come during dinner. During the workday. Even in the middle of the night.

They veer from annoying and laughable to frightening and dangerous.

Sometimes, they're offering debt reduction, solar panels or a free trip. Sometimes, they're in Mandarin. Other times, they're allegedly urgent calls from the Social Security Administration or the Internal Revenue Service. The truly despicable ones claim someone you love is in trouble.

They have to stop.

The Federal Communications Commission voted last week to allow phone companies to block such calls by default, without getting customer permission, though the new rule will include an opt-out provision for customers who don't want such calls blocked. Phone companies can choose whether to participate. They also can decide to charge for the service, which would be unfortunate. But the FCC's move is a start.

Robocalls have become so ubiquitous that it's surprising when you go a day without getting one. Those who have landlines often don't answer any calls. On cellphones, the scammers use area codes and locations similar to others that you answer. While the calls are hated for how irritating they are, the bigger concern is just how easily and how often they work, and how many seniors and others fall prey to scams and schemes. According to the Federal Trade Commission, U.S. consumers lost $55 million just to tech support-related scams last year.

According to Sen. Chuck Schumer, a stunning 34.8 million robocalls were received in Long Island area codes in April alone. That's more than a million calls a day. The FCC says about 60 percent of the complaints it receives are about robocalls. By some estimates, more than half of robocalls are scams.

For years, there's been talk about how to combat the calls, but, disappointingly, there's been little action. Schumer and others have pushed for change, but federal efforts have failed to make a difference. The National Do Not Call registry has been ignored by scammers, and penalties on robocallers who have been caught haven't been sufficient.

The FTC and the FCC set regulations on this issue. Now, Congress and both agencies seem close to finding viable solutions. The U.S. Senate last month passed the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRACED). The bill, sponsored by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey and South Dakota Republican John Thune, would give the FCC more power to fine robocallers, as much as $10,000 per call, and would add to the timeframe between when a call is placed and when the FCC can find and prosecute such scammers. Perhaps most important, the legislation would require telecommunications firms to establish technology that authenticates which calls are real and which are robocalls or scams, and to stop them before they reach a customer.

Fighting robocalls might just be the one issue nowadays that could be truly bipartisan. The TRACED legislation passed the Senate 97-1, with Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) as the sole holdout. Perhaps Paul doesn't own a telephone?

Now it's on to the House of Representatives, which should pass the bill, too. We hope President Donald Trump will sign it.

But that won't be enough. The FCC's new rule should help, too. It also will allow consumers to decide whether to get calls only from contacts that they specify.

Questions on how to execute the FCC's proposed filters remain. Regulators will have to work with the phone companies to make sure filters are flexible, so wanted robocalls — like a school closing or a fraud alert from a credit card company — get through. They'll also have to be aware of whether phone companies start to charge for the service, and, if they do, consider mandating that it be free of charge.

Federal officials and advocates also must educate seniors and others who are vulnerable to falling for fraud, while aggressively pursuing and penalizing the scammers.

Despite the progress that's being made, however, we're not convinced the FCC's own leadership is fully committed to ridding consumers of this plague. Sometimes, it appears to kowtow to the industries that benefit from lax regulations. Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly told an industry group representing debt collectors this month that "Robocall is not a bad word," and argued that federal officials should "stop vilifying automated calls."

Most consumers would say otherwise.

The scourge of robocalls will end only when telecommunications companies, federal regulators and lawmakers get ahead of the robocallers with technology and regulation, and a constant pursuit of scammers.

It's time to hang up on robocalls.


___The Daily News on Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao

June 12

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are in bed with each other, and not just as husband and wife.

New revelations of official coziness are a huge problem for Chao, whose leadership of the infrastructure-building agency was already on a shaky foundation. Unless she can explain a slew of suspect decisions, and do it quick, she must step down.

Monday, Politico reported that Chao designated a dedicated liaison to help Kentucky and only Kentucky — the state represented by her powerful spouse — with infrastructure grants.

Not California, with more people and needs than anyplace else. Not New York, the economic capital, with aging tunnels and bridges. Just the Bluegrass State.

So just as McConnell was gearing up for reelection, Kentucky won nearly $80 million in approved grants, including a highway-improvement project that had been previously rejected twice. Convenient.

This obscene use of political power puts in sharp focus other curious episodes during Chao's tenure.

The New York Times reported that in a 2017 proposed trip to China, Chao — whose family runs an American shipping company with extensive business in China — attempted to have Beijing Embassy staff coordinate travel for at least one family member and have other relatives sit in on meetings with Chinese government officials.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Chao made $40,000 profiting from sale of stock in the country's largest construction materials supplier — stock she had promised to divest from a year ago.

At this point, we're too exhausted to muster much surprise at the discovery of this type of behavior in the Trump Cabinet. But we're not tired enough to take it laying down.


___The Adirondack Daily Enterprise on no-bail reform

June 3

Have legislators in Albany just erected a massive roadblock to treating the opioid scourge by eliminating bail for low-level drug offenses?

It is entirely possible.

Consider this situation — which isn't really hypothetical because we have heard of it happening:

Someone with an addiction issue is arrested on a low-level charge and taken to their county jail in lieu of a small amount of bail. Unable to post bail, with the help of medication available at the jail and a little bit of time, the addict realizes he or she needs help to get rid of the addiction. The addict volunteers to attend Drug Court and is released from jail without paying bail on the condition that he or she continues with treatment programs.

In this circumstance, the inability to post bail has actually been a benefit to both a person and to the community by helping addicts realize they need help.

Franklin County, at least, does a drug screening for everyone it takes in and offers treatment. We have been at presentations at which Franklin County law enforcement, social services, medical and drug treatment officials — as well as addicts in recovery — all agreed that there are many pathways to recovery for addicts once they get into the jail and prison system. It's on the outside that we need more treatment access.

Without bail or the threat of time in jail, we wonder if fewer people will see a drug arrest as a wake-up call.

That's a fear that David Soares, Albany County district attorney, shared with state legislators during testimony in January.

"I also need to point out the possible impact on drug courts. The way drug courts work right now is that defendants are held on bail and given the option of drug court or jail," Soares told legislators. "If everyone gets presumptive release on drug cases, nobody will go to drug court. We need to carefully examine how we treat drug crimes under any new bail proposal. I know I don't have to tell you how bad the opioid crisis is in our state. Drug courts around have been very successful in helping individuals get the services they need and stay clean."

We hope Soares's prediction doesn't come true. Drug courts are a well-used tool here and around the country, proven to reduce recidivism among addicts.

Consider, too, the revolving door through which someone is charged, posts quick bail and is back on the streets offending again. The phenomenon happens regularly and is true of low-level dealers who are often charged with crimes other than drug dealing. Bail reform is likely to allow low-level users back onto the streets even more quickly than before. Alaska implemented a comprehensive criminal reform bill in 2016 that placed defendants into pretrial services after a risk assessment was performed. Later dubbed "catch and release," Alaska's governor asked for change to the system in 2018 and then pushed tougher reforms to the legislation in January.

Bail reform, as a concept, is not a bad idea. Bail reform as it has been approved in New York very likely may be a bad idea. Democrats in Albany can't say they weren't warned about the issues with the law as it is written. Soares, himself a Democrat who is described as a progressive, warned legislators in pretty stark terms about the flaws in the bail reform legislation. They chose not to heed him. If it turns out that New York follows Alaska's "catch and release" example or, even worse, that counties find out addicts aren't finding their way into treatment, we hope state legislators will use their heads and rewrite the law.


___The Glen Falls Post-Star on law enforcement monitoring social media

June 7

The Warren County Sheriff's Office says it has "contracted" with a Burlington-based technology company to use advanced artificial intelligence to monitor social media accounts and alert law enforcement to possible threats toward local schools.

We like that schools and law enforcement are looking to alternatives to armed resource officers when it comes to school safety, but we'd like to know more details before going forward. We believe a greater community discussion needs to be had.

We wonder if there is still a general expectation that social media posts are private. How many of us really understand our Facebook privacy settings?

The company, Social Sentinel, was founded by Gary Margolis, a 30-year veteran of law enforcement and security who had previously served as the chief of police at the University of Vermont.

The company describes itself this way on its website:

- We study and understand the language of harm and violence. We deploy advanced technology and work with subject matter experts to constantly evolve Social Sentinel's proprietary machine learning methodologies.

- Machine learning (AI) algorithms classify data into alerts for immediate attention and insights for a broader context, leading to greater understanding.

- We built technology that searches worldwide to make local connections beyond a geo-fence.

- We create context by highlighting discussions and trends relevant to your communities right now.

It is a compelling solution to not only school violence, but anyone who might be contemplating doing harm to themselves.

It's fighting technology with technology. Social Sentinel says it scans through "a billion posts daily to identify ones related to a school's safety, security and wellness." It scans a dozen social media platforms using an ever-evolving "language of harm" library as a baseline of what words to be concerned about.

Naturally, even the most advanced computer systems can't be 100 percent accurate about intent. A CBS News report last fall pointed out a case where the post "I gotta kill you all" was flagged. It turned out it was a rap lyric. And one of the flaws of the system is many false positives, so there is an absolute need for someone to review any post that is flagged.

The way it works, when Social Sentinel has a concern with a post, it alerts the Sheriff's Office, whose officers decide how to proceed and whether they should try to track down that person.

Because law enforcement is involved, there is a concern that the system could be abused.

Deciding what is harmless, a bad joke or a real threat can be subjective. It is unclear how law enforcement officials might respond as they investigate.

How would a hacked account be handled?

Will officers be given advanced training on how to evaluate social media threats? What will be the standards? And once it becomes widely known that social media posts are regularly reviewed, won't the system become less effective? There is also a concern it could be abused by law enforcement. Four years ago, the Lowell Police Department was looking to purchase a similar monitoring system and received objections from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts' Technology for Liberty Project.

"People should be able to criticize government in a free society without some cop somewhere writing down everything they say," said director Kade Crockford to the Lowell Sun at the time. We're concerned this is a slippery slope, but it is an option that should be explored.


___The Dunkirk Evening Observer on China tariffs and rare earth minerals

June 7

Thank you, Beijing, for making it clear to Americans how short-sighted we have been for many years.

Chinese officials have issued a new threat as part of their reaction to President Donald Trump's increases in tariffs on some goods imported here from China. His purpose is to force Beijing to lower trade barriers that harm U.S. companies and to curb abuses such as theft of intellectual property.

Some of the materials used in electronic devices such as cell phones and electric vehicles are rare minerals. Collectively, they sometimes are referred to as "rare earth."

Instead of developing other, secure sources of such minerals, the United States has become dependent to some extent on China, which possesses large quantities of rare earth.

Now, the Chinese are hinting that in retaliation for Trump's action, they may cut off our supplies of the minerals.

For decades, proponents of a global marketplace approach to economics have assured Americans that is in our best interests in both the short and long terms. So, we have allowed other countries to build up certain critical industries, including energy and steelmaking. In the process, the United States has become dependent on other nations for many products, including some critical to our national security.

Yes, that has meant lower prices for some goods, including steel and sometimes, gasoline. It also has resulted in other nations — or groups of them, as with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries for many years — being able to influence both our economic and diplomatic policies by threatening to cut us off and sometimes doing so.

China's threat on rare earth is one more reminder of how shortsighted our policies have been.